Offical: Diversity affects students results

Published 5:00 am Monday, September 13, 2004

A Brookhaven School District official says diversity plays amajor role in the city schools’ results on federally and statemandated tests.

While results on the Mississippi Curriculum Test (MCT) andSubject Area Test Program (SATP) place many of the district’sscores around the state average, Superintendent Lea Barrett saidthe district is meeting its No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act studentgrowth mandates in all areas but one.

She said changes made in the way special education students aretested resulted in the district not meeting those requirements.

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Prior to NCLB, she said, Mississippi schools taught theirspecial education students based on their instructional level,meaning an eighth grade student who tested at the third gradereading level, for instance, was tested at the third grade level inthat category. However, the NCLB Act requires students be tested attheir actual grade level.

The state had requested and received a waiver on thatrequirement last year, she said, but this year the waiver did notapply. It takes more than one year to bring a student “up to speed”under those circumstances, she said.

The only special education students excluded under NCLB arethose with “significant cognitive disability,” she said, using theact’s terminology to describe severely impaired children who oftenrequire 24-hour care.

Further complicating the situation, she said, is Brookhaven’sstanding as a district with a strong special education program.

“Every district has different strengths and one of ours is ourspecial education program,” Barrett said. “Because Brookhaven isknown for having such a strong program, I think more people facingthese difficulties tend to move into this district when coming tolive in this area.”

While those factors specifically have a negative effect on thespecial education program, other scores are improving districtwide. The pace of the district’s improvement, however, has not beenable to surpass that of the state and has resulted in the districtmatching, but rarely exceeding, the state’s average on MCT and SATscores.

The pace of improvement is more difficult to accelerate inurban-based school systems, Barrett said, because of the diversityamong students.

Socio-economics play a much larger role in urban districts thanrural. Urban districts have a larger percentage of students spreadamong disparate income levels than rural areas, but she hastened toadd that other factors also played a role.

“There is no proof of cause and effect, but historically therehas been a correlation,” Barrett said. “The easy out is to say thatis the reason. We don’t think so.

“Parents who are trying to make a living may not have the timeto read as much to their children or be able to take them to thezoo as often as more financially-stable families do, but we believethe teacher in the classroom ultimately makes the difference,” shesaid.

A teacher with a strong curriculum and lesson plan should beable to offset those socioeconomic factors, Barrett said.

“We do have those strong teachers and we have shown phenomenalgrowth along longitudinal analysis,” she said.

Longitudinal analysis is the practice of comparing the samechild from grade to grade rather than comparing one year’s thirdgrade with the following year’s, she said.

More difficult to address is the adjustments students must makewhen moving into the district for the first time, Barrett said. Thebest student can perform at less than his normal levels whileadjusting to a new district because of the stress of not knowinganyone or the city.

“We’re not just talking about black/white or male/female whentalking about diversity, but also those who have moved in fromother areas,” she said. “I don’t know if that holds up statewide,but it does apply locally to test scores.”

Another factor affecting student development is the distributionof the district’s resources, Barrett said. The district now has”great facilities” and strong extracurricular activities because ofinvestments made in the past several years, including themodernization and renovation of the high school. The district cannow apply executives’ time that was spent on those issues, andfunding, to place more emphasis on student achievement.

“Our focus now, more than ever, is student achievement. Thereare none of those nagging issues to distract us,” she said.

District executives can now devote more time on improvinginstructional techniques and the curriculum, she said.

“I think we can do better. I know we can do better. But, Ihaven’t been in this position long enough to identify thoseweaknesses,” Barrett said. “Maybe there’s some little something wecan tweak at the top level that can help our teachers andprincipals. They are emotionally invested in our students’ success.We have some of the most committed and the finest principals andteachers I’ve ever been associated with.”

Barrett, who has held the superintendent’s title for about aweek, was an assistant superintendent with the district for manyyears.